First you assimilate…

Bill Thompson
4 min readDec 29, 2020


I’ve been reading a lot recently about how we have adapted to the various types of lockdown or other restrictions that we have faced around the world as we respond to SARS-COV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic in our various ways.

Of course the adaptations have been greatly influenced by personal circumstances, regional and national responses and the wider geopolitical situation. My life here in Stonesdale in North Yorkshire among a farming community is very different to that of someone in Delhi or Sao Paolo or Melbourne, or even London. It’s something we’ve tried hard to respect each week on Digital Planet, where our experience as a production team is shaped by local circumstances so can’t be generalised. When we talk lockdown we do so in our context, and acknowledge the different ways other people’s lives have been changed.

But just as the internet has changed the lives of everybody on the planet. even if they have never used a computer or phone or sent an email, so Covid-19 has changed something for everyone. The systems that surround us have had to adapt. There are fewer travellers, more checks and restrictions, increased constraints on many sorts of interaction, and a changed set of assumptions about what is safe or risky or must be endured. This is as true for someone in Kibera, Nairobi as it is in Silicon Valley, California or here in Stonesdale, North Yorkshire.

The question of how we deal with this next year, and the years after, is pressing. One of the best answers is Matt Webb’s latest post on — and I’d like to thank Matt for making so much sense this year and stimulating me to think differently about so many things. His writing is always clear and direct, and his trains of thought have taken me along many useful tracks.

Anyway, in his latest piece ( read it here) Matt points out that the short term changes many of us were forced to make have become longer term shifts in the ways we live, and that they create a space for reappraising choices and options. As he notes:

Personally: Short-term adjustments mean working from my sofa using Zoom, and pausing the usual round of coffees and chatting (that’s how I find new ideas and also new work).

Long-term means moving the house around and setting up a desk; sorting out the lighting; opening my calendar on Wednesdays for Unoffice Hours… but also domestic things like using the time freed up from the commute to get into baking. All to the point that if somehow I could magically go back to the old way, I’m not sure I would.

Matt Webb

I feel the same. I will never return to travelling to London four or five days a week to go to the office, and have spent much of the Christmas break making my house more amenable as a combined working/living space.

This is true at the organisational level too. The long term response to this pandemic (it’s not ‘the’ pandemic… there have been, and will be, others) is a major topic of discussion within the BBC and other large organisations as they attempt to understand how to organise workforces and workplaces in future, now that we have had nearly nine months of mostly-remote operation and understand its parameters a lot better.

It seems to me that a useful model for what is happening as we begin to understand both that some ways of being are no longer possible, and some ways of being are now no longer necessary, is Piaget’s model of childhood development where he distinguished between assimilation and accommodation as we each develop our internal model of the world.

At the heart of Piaget’s work is the idea of the schema, a ‘cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning’. He saw development as the process of expanding and enhancing the schemas available, allowing more complex thought and better adaptation to the environment.

This was to be done through two processes: assimilation, where new knowledge about the world and how it works is incorporated into existing structures, while accommodation means existing structures change to accommodate to the new information by revising existing cognitive schemas, perceptions, and understanding so that new information can be incorporated. This happens when the existing schema does not work, and needs to be changed to deal with a new object or situation.

The goal of this effort is equilibrium, where most new information can be assimilated without too much cognitive effort.

In considering our response to Covid-19, we might consider that societies and institutions, like individuals, have schemas into which they attempt to fit their observations of the world, but rather than internal mental models we can read them more generously as a set of assumptions that is used to shape action — whether that’s the idea of an office, or a school, or a career, or how to eat in a restaurant or how a Parliament works.

When Covid-19 appeared we tried hard to make sense of it, to assimilate it into our existing ways of living, but the enormity of this pandemic has overwhelmed us and we are now in the midst of a massive, and completely exhausting, set of accommodations. And we will get there, at a price.

However once you’ve adapted your frameworks then just going back isn’t an option — or it’s not an easy option. Our world model isn’t elastic, and it won’t just snap back into place once the restrictions are eased, even if we assume that they will be completely withdrawn. We haven’t just glimpsed another way of being : we have lived through it, accommodated to it, and now we see possibilities within these revised schemas. The challenge, and the possibility, comes from exploring what meaning we can find within them.